Activism and Authority

ACT UP and TAC as Successful Arbiters of HIV Treatment Policy Change


  • Sydney Szijarto McMaster



HIV/AIDS, Activism, ACT UP, TAC, 1980s, 1990s


This paper investigates two AIDS activist organizations: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the United States, and the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa, and their relationships to both pharmaceutical companies and their own governments. While both organizations set themselves in direct opposition to pharmaceutical companies, relationships with their respective governments differed dramatically. TAC, while very critical of its government, ultimately won its battles, and then devoted its energy to helping the government implement the new policy as effectively as possible; in contrast, ACT UP perceived itself to be in direct opposition to the American government and refused to show it any support. In this paper, I will argue that this dichotomy was in part defined by a divergent faith in the democratic processes which upheld the American and South African government. The TAC believed in the ability of South Africans to elect a representative government; ACT UP did not have the same confidence in Americans. TAC therefore perceived its government as an ally, while to ACT UP, the American government would always be an enemy.


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